Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mexico to the United States: A Challenging Transition

        Despite the many differences between American and Mexican culture, many Mexicans choose to pack up and start new lives in the United States.  In fact, about nine percent of native-born Mexicans are now members of American society (US).  That is a large number of people who are obliged to conform or adapt to a new way of life.  There are countless differences and similarities between Mexican and American culture.  Three of the major differences are the expression and concept of respect, the deliberate encouragement of individualism in the United States as opposed to collectivism in Mexico, and the overall diversity in the United States.
Change is a part of life.  It has been commented upon in many ways, in many languages, that change is the only constant in life.  Things are always changing, large and small; this is one of the few things that can be fully counted upon.  The most basic properties of our world are dependent upon change.  The difference between seconds in time constitutes a change.  Taking a simple breath requires movement, which is a change in position.  The universe exists in perpetual motions and activity, changing moment to moment on every level of truth, from the orbiting of subatomic electrons to the rotation of heavenly bodies.  It is no wonder, then, that our lives are an extension of this change.
Most people are born in a city or town, and grow up in that area’s general vicinity.  Even if a person moves around often, they will stay within a similar culture.  A person moving from Portland to North Carolina, a considerable distance, will definitely experience change – perhaps in weather, political party affiliation, speech accent, and other subtle nuances.  However, much remains the same – value systems, economic motivation, structure of family system, language, and tolerance of diversity.  For the most part, the everyday American moving within the country does not change cultures; they do not need to learn a new way of life.  Someone immigrating to the United States from Mexico faces numerous changes, many of which must be made purely for their survival.
In the United States, new is better.  Just look at the advertisements littering every empty space. American culture is somewhat obsessed with new things and most of these obsessions are of the material world.  Many families purchase new cars every few years, constantly update their technological accessories, and buy new clothes often.  In Mexico, something (or someone) older is respected because it has lasted and proved its worth.  For example, an old quilt might be passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter.  This quilt is cherished and appreciated, even passed down because of its sentimental worth.  Someone new to American culture may begin to feel inadequate when all of a sudden traditional items do not fall under the approval of the general public.   They may perceive this practice of keeping things new as disrespectful or unappreciative.
An aspect of American life which may seem bad-mannered at first to a newly immigrated Mexican is the informality of American culture.  Formal address is the most common way Mexican people show respect.  In the United States, formalities are often sacrificed for efficiency (Comparing).  In the busy and time-centered American culture, importance lies with getting the job done and doing it right.  There are other ways to show respect here than through deliberate and careful speech.  Built right into the Spanish language is a way to speak formally and with respect, as well as informally.  To speak directly to a teacher, older person or authoritative figure, one would call them usted instead of tu (Clutter & Nieto).  The verb that goes with the subject of the sentence varies slightly, showing the amount of respect within the words of each sentence.  It could be difficult for someone who is still learning the American language or culture to show the respect they want through speech.  Also, a newly immigrated Mexican may mistake an American’s lack of formality for disrespect, leading to trouble developing interpersonal relationships.
Differences in regards to appearance exist as well.  Most American schools do not enforce strict dress codes.  Students are generally able to wear whatever they feel comfortable in, and when restrictions are made, a resistance is raised about them.  In Mexico it is very common for uniforms to be required.  Also, students are accustomed to dressing nicely for school, people are expected to dress nicely for church, and even in manual labor jobs, Mexican men generally wear collared shirts.  It is more common in the United States for formal appearance to be sacrificed for functionality.  Not very many American construction workers wear long-sleeve collared shirts when they are digging in ditches.  This is not disrespectful behavior; it is simply a difference in the practice of respect.  Traditional and respectful behavior in Mexican culture also extends itself to the dating world.
In the event that a couple is getting even a little bit serious during dating, the male must ask the female’s father if it is acceptable for him to date his daughter.  This practice of respect used to exist in the United States, but changes in gender roles have done away with this practice for the most part.  It still soundly exists in Mexico.  This code of conduct extends even to places like dance clubs.  If a female is present with any other male, someone who wants to dance with her must ask the man she is with for his permission.  It is simply an issue of respect, a cultural tradition, and it does not apply in the United States (Ruiz).
Some of this respect likely comes from the large number of religious persons within the Mexican community.  Approximately 90% of Mexicans are of the Roman Catholic faith, a ritualistic Christian religion hundreds of years old (Clutter & Nieto).  Strong perseverance of the practices of this religion as a part of Mexican society keep tradition alive.  There is a saying in Mexico, particularly among the young people, that, “If you ain’t got respect, you ain’t got shit” (Castillo).
Mexico is very much a collectivist society, as opposed to American individualism.  So, what is a collectivist society?  A collectivist society has an underlying value that survival depends upon the success of the group (Collectivism).  This value becomes the central hub from which the rest of the society fans out.  One such ideal is the conscious and subconscious motive most Mexicans have that the group is actually more important that the individual.  A common collectivist will feel an obligation to conform to a group, or sacrifice their own well being for the group’s survival.  Given the foundation value that group survival ensures the survival of the individuals, it is very logical therefore that members of Mexican society feel like going against the family’s wishes is highly disrespectful.  A person who sacrifices their personal well being for that of a group may be viewed by Americans as a codependent or unhealthy individual who is unable to get their needs met.
The Mexican word for family, familia, actually goes beyond the meaning we have in English.  Familia refers to a person’s brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, other extended family members, as well as friends.  Those adjusting to American culture often can see Americans as cold or distant because of differences in family structure.  The average American family home consists of parents and children.  It is common for other members of the familia besides parents and children to live in the same home in Mexico.  A common ideal in this society is that a person has made it when they become successful separate from their parents.  Obviously much variation exists, but public opinion is generally aligned with this view.  That is not the case in Mexico.  Success there is oriented around the group, the family, and the closeness achieved or the amount of tradition carried on.
Ties between Mexican family members are very strong.  There is somewhat of an ethical responsibility to help out members of the family who are in need.  It may be looked at as ‘turning one’s back on family’ if help is refused to be given when someone is clearly struggling.  The expectation of oneself in Mexican culture is to help out those in need.  It is a cultural obligation.  Joseph Castillo, a young man who spent his early years in Mexico, described the altruistic nature of his hometown.  “If someone knocked on your door and asked for some food,” he stated confidently, “you would just give them some food” (Castillo).  This differs sharply from a classic American value of individualism.  Members of American families tend toward allowing people to make their mistakes and have an opportunity to learn, as an individual person in the family, not a representative of the family (Adjusting).
It is ironic that so many Mexican born persons migrate great distances to America.  Due to the importance of the closeness of family, traditionally members of families do not normally move away at all from their family of origin, and if they do, it is not far (Comparing).  Even on overnight business trips, travelers are much more likely to stay with family or friends of family than in a hotel (Clutter & Neito), a testament to the strong ties to one’s familia.  Recent economic and political instability have caused immigration to the United States to increase significantly (Numbers).  Out of respect and honor, many migrating families continue to preserve the Spanish language in the home (Clutter & Nieto).  This shows the sense of pride in the Mexican way of life, and a respect of and commitment to the family tradition even after moving far away.
The typical American societal model is one of the lone cowboy, patrolling the range, with nothing but his six-shooter, his wits and his trusty horse.  He doesn’t need anyone to be close to.  Though an extreme example, not to be taken too literally, it paints the picture nicely.  The expectation for the majority of Americans is that finding happiness is a personal journey.  It isn’t anyone else’s job.  A newcomer to this culture may see this as cold, uncaring or even self-centered or egocentric.  This is not the case; ever since the early days of wild America, this has been the land of opportunity, where many have ventured to find their fortune and make a new life.
America is the land of diversity.  The so-called ‘melting pot’ of the world, this country was founded on immigration.  Originally, only a few million Native Americans lived in North America.  Many more millions of people migrated here from Europe and beyond, as well as some whom were stolen from their homes in Africa.  A whole lot of people have had to start completely from scratch in this country, hoping they will make something of themselves.  In the early days of the United States, different ethnic groups settled together, creating miniature replicas of life ‘back home,’ wherever that was for them.  Immigrants today do not have the luxury, or the space, to create whole towns of other immigrants just like them.  For the most part, they must allow themselves to be absorbed into the ever changing accumulation that is American culture.
The extensive diversity itself can be a shock to incoming Mexican immigrants.  In the traditional, family oriented culture of Mexico, diversity does not exist on the scale to which it does in America.  As it was stated before, nine out of ten people living in Mexico are Roman Catholic.  Though the numbers are declining, about 90% of Mexicans affiliate themselves with the Roman Catholic religion.  This number has decreased from a staggering 96.2% of people in 1970 (Walker).  Only about 25.9% of the United States identified itself as Catholic in 2001 (United).
It seems that in Mexico, alternatives are simply hard to come by it seems.  A lot of people are Catholic, and that is how it has been for a long time.  For many millions of people in Mexico, their religion is working quite well.  The social structure is set; there is no need to go pulling apart the foundation.  That is for the change-oriented Americans to do.  Of course, on the other hand, it can be a shame, too, because within diversity, so much can be learned.
Tolerance is a challenge for almost everyone.  It’s part of what makes us human.  One of the beautiful things about America is that the environment is one in favor of tolerance.  Why?  This American society is change-oriented.  The rest of the world is quick to criticize American culture for its history of intolerance and continued prejudices.  The exciting thing about this is that tolerance is ever increasing.  In the early years of the United States, slavery was legal and widely accepted.  Women were enslaved in the home.  Through the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Suffrage, and other movements, these types of problems have decreased in prevalence.  Progress is a reality.  Most other nations of the world do not have the diversity, so the problem of intolerance within the state is neatly avoided.  If, for example, ninety percent of Americans were Roman Catholic, there would be no need for tolerance because there really wouldn’t be enough diversity to make intolerance an issue.
This battle of diversity and change can be a difficult one in which to adjust.  The culture is much more established in Mexico.  Of course things change over time, but tradition is very important and many things from the way people relate to one another to the clothing and family dynamics are much the same as they have been there for quite some time.  The United States is still finding its feet in this respect.  Styles of dress constantly change, standards of conduct are shifting this way and that; change has a comfortable place within American culture.  Perhaps it isn’t so much that the United States is finding its feet as its feet are just always moving, adapting and embracing changing terrain based on the latest intelligence.  Who knows what the truth is exactly.  It can be certain that a person fresh across the border will likely feel unstable in the changing tide of American culture.
The adjustment is a tough one, for sure.  It would be an adventure, probably an especially frustrating and lesson-filled adventure, to begin fresh in America after a whole life in Mexico.  Honestly, one would thing that two cultures so close together geographically would have more in common in the department of everyday living.  But the ongoing process of development in each country has been completely different.  This gives us the two cultures, which are at many places complete opposites.  Mexican immigrants in the United States stand facing many challenges of adjustment, especially in regards to learning to live with individualism, diversity, and differences in demonstrations of respect.  These differences come with the possibility for misunderstanding and negative emotion, but the possibilities do not end there.  Many millions of Mexicans have found their niche in American society, holding a balance between the old ways and the new.

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